The Long Dark: Identifying and Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder
Autumn is a time of change; the leaves turn color, the air is crisper, and the weather is somehow even more gloomy than usual. Some people relish in the cooler temperatures and excitedly await the accompanying holidays. For others, however, this time of year brings on unwanted changes in mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a depressive disorder triggered by the changing of the seasons, particularly to autumn and winter.
What exactly is SAD?
According to Tri C psychology professor Dr. Alyssa Mason, SAD is a type of depression hallmarked by the body’s response to the dark and cold months of autumn and winter. Symptoms of SAD are similar to those of Major Depressive Disorder; lower mood, anhedonia (or the inability to feel pleasure,) difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, carb cravings, subsequent weight gain, as well as anxiety, and social withdrawal.
Dr. Mason highlights the main cause of SAD is lack of sunlight. It can be easy to take the sun for granted, especially as the Cleveland area gets so precious few hours of sunlight already. However, the benefits of sunlight’s vitamin D cannot be overstated. While vitamin D has many well-known physical benefits to bone health and blood pressure, it’s also critical in improving mood and sleep. Additionally, light cues tell our bodies when to produce melatonin, when to wake up, and generally regulate our circadian rhythms. Daylight savings and the further loss of daylight hours in the fall can wreak havoc on our sleeping cycles which can, in turn, cause irritability and lower mood.
The SAD Experience
Student A, a 23-year-old Tri C sophomore who wishes to remain anonymous, was kind enough to share his experience with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The student says his symptoms first started manifesting annually at age 19, while still living in his previous home of Texas. “It doesn’t look as bitter down there in the winter as it does up here, but things still slow down.”
When asked about his symptoms, the student elaborates, “I guess the cold normally starts it for me. It’s so sharp on my skin, just being outside feels like I’m under attack. Ohio is a beautiful place when the sun is out, but then the clouds take over and the whole world just kind of turns grey and hostile.”
Lack of social interaction is another big issue with SAD sufferers. In the winter months, there isn’t much going on in the way of public social events and especially so in the time of COVID. “The cold keeps everyone in,” as Student A describes it. As observed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, lack of social interaction wreaks havoc on mental health. Social isolation compounded with the gloomy atmosphere of a Northeast Ohio winter is enough to make anyone feel alone and depressed.
These feelings can lead to further unhealthy behaviors. Student A recounts his struggles with substance abuse as a way he copes with SAD. This exacerbates his problems, making him feel uncomfortable in seeking help from counselors or other medical professionals. “I don’t really wanna talk to a counselor. I feel like there is a huge disconnect between a 45-year-old professional who has never smoked weed and a 22-year-old college student.” Student A also voices concerns about being prescribed antidepressants, saying it’s something that he’s afraid of.
When asked for advice for students, Student A replied “check on your friends.” Keeping in touch and being there for your friends is incredibly important in curbing symptoms and general loneliness. We can never know what exactly our companions are going through at any given moment, but we can be there for them.
How is SAD treated professionally?
Luckily for Student A, and others wary of the effects of psychiatric medication, antidepressants aren’t typically prescribed for most cases of SAD. According to Dr. Mason, some of the best methods to manage SAD symptoms can be done from the comfort of home. If you haven’t already, she recommends adding vitamin D supplements to your daily self-care routine.
“Talk therapy is generally helpful for most psychologic and mood disorders.” Dr. Mason recommends. With the advent of telehealth, it’s easier than ever to reach out to a mental health professional, especially as commuting gets harder during winter. Being able to find someone to speak with openly and judgement-free about your feelings is critical to everyone, not just SAD sufferers.
Dr. Mason continues, “Light therapy is a newer treatment, believed to counteract the lack of sunlight.” Mayoclinic describes light therapy as “a way to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and certain other conditions by exposure to artificial light.” In light therapy, one sits next to a device called a light therapy box. One is free to do whatever they like, reading, working, drawing, etc. next to the light therapy box which mimics natural light. This practice is supposed to affect brain chemicals that are reactive to light, such as melatonin and serotonin. Some studies show that light therapy can also be effective for nonseasonal depression and sleeping disorders.
When asked for advice to students suffering from seasonal depression, Dr. Mason responded “Try to get outside as much as you can, especially during sunnier days.” Despite the coldness, as long as the sun is out you can get plenty of that much-needed vitamin D, and physical exercise is an added bonus. “Staying on a regular sleep schedule is one thing that helps regulate circadian rhythms and minimize irritation.” Especially as finals roll around and everyone gets in that last-minute cramming, you’ll want to avoid staying up too late. And finally, Dr. Mason recommends taking time for yourself. “Meditations, working out, taking time to do things you enjoy that you might not always have a chance to do.” This is especially helpful in situations where you might not be able to meet up with friends or family due to poor weather.
How can Tri-C help?
Tri-C offers personal counseling services and can refer a student to outside mental health programs if preferred or necessary. Currently enrolled students have access to short-term counseling services via the Counseling Centers to meet with counselors and psychologists either on campus during select hours or online. Counseling services can be accessed online via the My Tri-C website under the counseling tab or by visiting your campus’s counseling center.